Mid-Sized cities often have many of the advantages of larger cities, but less of the disadvantages (rush-hour traffic, etc.). And in the U.S., mid-sized cities are often where the most exciting music, cuisine, social movements are starting.
So here are my ten favorite mid-sized American cities. Let's see how many you agree with!
#10: SAVANNAH, GEORGIA - Savannah is a city lost in time. Here, the traditional Southern "genteel" life still lives on. And so does Southern hospitality. Savannah's beautiful streets are lined with old brick homes, gracious parks and interesting landmarks...and historic (and haunted!) cemeteries. One of the best ways to meander these streets is atop a horse-drawn carriage, for a true immersion in "Old South." And nowhere is the art of true Southern cookin' manifested more expertly than here, from biscuits-'n-gravy to shrimp-'n-grits.
#9: PORTLAND, OREGON - A tree-hugger's delight! This city sits on the Willamette River and stands before the magnificent Cascade Range. Portland is more environmentally-advanced - from its light-rail and trolleys to its waste-disposal systems - than just about any other city in America. It's filled with friendly, laid-back people (most of whom seem to be wearing backpacks), and user-friendly amenities set up specifically for them. Nowhere is the farm-to-table movement stronger. And the reason for many of those backpacks? Portlanders spend much of their free time in the Great Outdoors, at such spots as stunning Mt. Hood, 60 miles away; Multnomah Falls; and the Columbia River Gorge. #8: FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA - In the 1980's, Fort Lauderdale was mostly known for the hundreds of thousands of college kids who converged on the city every year for Spring Break. But the Spring Breakers long ago left for other party-grounds...and Fort Lauderdale is now a cosmopolitan international city, with a growing skyline, first-class hotels and restaurants, and a vibrant cultural life. At night, its best experienced on its European-style boulevard called Las Olas, where the galleries and shops are one-of-a-kind, and the restaurants - which offer outdoor as well as indoor dining - offer an eclectic range of cuisines. The Water Taxi, which runs along the New River, will take you to all the most important entertainment, dining, and cultural spots downtown. And Fort Lauderdale still has one of the world's greatest beaches.
#7: SPOKANE, WASHINGTON - Spokane is one of those off-the-beaten-path surprises. This city of 200,000 is filled with restored historic neighborhoods with interesting restaurants and boutiques. Once an old, polluted rail yard, the 110 wooded acres of Riverfront Park is the center of Spokane life. Here, kids of all ages can climb atop The Radio Flyer, a red wagon that's a bit bigger than the one you had as a child - 12-feet high, 12-feet wide, and 27-feet long, to be precise! Also in the park are a Turn-of-the-Century carousel and the Spokane Sky Ride, which takes you in a cable car over the thundering Spokane Falls. The city's "preserve the past" ethic is evident in places like The Steam Plant, an old Industrial-Age structure now home to the notable Stacks Restaurant. And, unlike the western side of Washington, Spokane gets plenty of sunshine.
#6: ROANOKE, VIRGINIA - Roanoke is only minutes from mountains and meadows. It sits near the Blue Ridge Parkway, considered by many to be America's most beautiful road. Downtown has beautifully-preserved buildings in the Southern-Classic style. There's also a growing foodie scene here, with a surprising variety of ethnic restaurants. The Center in the Square holds a number of performing arts theaters and museums, and the Taubman Museum of Art is an architecturally-striking building with a notable collection of American art. Historic Grandin Village has old-time shops and restaurants. And outside downtown are the Chateau Morrisette Winery, the historic Old Mabry Mill, and the Roanoke Star, an enormous structure overlooking the city from Mill Mountain.
#5: BOISE, IDAHO - Boise's a "big-little" city...with the amenities of the former and the charm of the latter. It boasts an active cultural life, good museums, and historic landmarks. Downtown is filled with quaint restaurants and shops, pedestrian plazas, and buildings constructed in the frontier style. This is one of the great "walking" towns in the West. The culinary scene features a Basque flavor, imparted by emigrants from the Pyrenees region on the Spanish-French border, who arrived here in the 1800's and took over much of the cattle- and sheep-herding. One of the best things about Boise? You can be floating in a kayak or canoe, or in the mountains, in just a few minutes.
#4: AMARILLO, TEXAS - Sitting amidst the tumblin' tumbleweeds in the Texas Panhandle, Amarillo has the most legendary steakhouse in America, colorful Route 66, sacred Native American spots, and the second-largest canyon in America. Palo Duro Canyon is a multi-colored tower of rock over 120 miles long, up to 20 miles wide, and over 800 feet deep. At the Kwahadi Museum of the American Indian, the Kwahadi Dancers bring to life the traditions of the Plains tribes, and the galleries feature works by well-known painters and potters. Amarillo's landmark, though, is the Big Texan Steak Ranch, immortalized on the "Man vs. Food" show on The Travel Channel. A half-million people come here every year, most for the legendary steak...Chicken-fried, Prime Rib, Rib eye, Strip, and T-Bone. The specialty of the house is the 72-ouncer. And if you can finish it in an hour or less, it's free!
#3: COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO - An hour south of Denver, Colorado Springs is the state's second-largest city (pop. 440,000) - but it has a friendly, small-town feel. Downtown is very walkable, with interesting shops, galleries, and museums. This city is set amidst mountains ranging up to more than 14,000 feet, among them Pike's Peak, as well as the Pike National Forest. It's surrounded by historic towns where the "West" isn't "Old," but still alive today, such as Manitou Springs, Old Colorado City, and Cripple Creek. Attractions include the United States Air Force Academy, the U.S. Olympic Training Center, and the Garden of the Gods, a series of spectacular sandstone monoliths. And just outside of downtown is the Italianate/Western palace called The Broadmoor; a Colorado icon, it's one of America's most-honored hotels.
#2: NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - Nashville, of course, is "The Capital of Country Music." But there's a lot more to this increasingly-cosmopolitan city than just country music. For one thing, Nashville is now home to a wide variety of music and musicians, from rock to reggae. For another, downtown's now filled with a vibrant cultural, culinary, and nightlife energy. Restaurants range from the landmark Capital Grille to the trendy Urban Grub to Peg Leg Porker, famous for its barbecue. The Schermerhorn Symphony Center, a new building with a classic old style, hosts renowned opera, symphony, and dance companies. And then there's Broadway, where Nashville comes together every night at dozens of famous honky-tonks, for some foot-stompin' Bluegrass, Country, or Rockabilly, and some great times.
And now, my pick for the top mid-sized city in America is...
#1: - ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO - The air is different here, filled with the fragrance of the ubiquitous pinon tree. The light is different, bright and vivid one minute, soft and subtle the next. The colors are different, too, in the mountains and the high-desert and the vistas-without-end. From the top of 10,600-foot Sandia Crest, you can see a hundred miles in any direction. To the distant horizons where the Acoma people live. To the north, the fabled Turquoise Trail to Santa Fe. And below, a city with wonderful museums; neighborhoods like eclectic Nob Hill or Historic Old Town; excellent restaurants; and a vibrant tri-cultural ethnic mix. Old Town, the historic original center of town, is filled with galleries, shops, and restaurants, and, on weekends, with Native Americans selling their weavings, pottery, and turquoise-and-silver jewelry. The Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum is considered the best of its kind in the world (and hosts the world's largest balloon festival every October). At the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, where you're immersed in the ancient artifacts, crafts, and ceremonies of the area's original residents. Albuquerque also lays claim to one of America's funkiest museums. The Tinkertown Museum is a multi-colored, ramshackle wooden building with nearly a million objects of American pop culture filling every nook and cranny.
Well...these are my Top 10 mid-sized American cities. What are your choices? Do you agree or disagree with mine? We'd love to hear from you!